True Tales of Korea’s Foreign Labourers

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
-Rudyard Kipling.

Indeed, it is impossible to understand a country if you never visited it. Tourists see the country differently from the locals. 

“No matter how many dramas I watched and how many things I heard from other people, it was totally different,” says Kim A. about South Korea, where he spent several months as a day-worker. The 28-year old Korean descendant (often referred to as goryeoin or Koryo-saram) was born and raised in Kazakhstan, so Mr. Kim (like most goryeoin) speaks Russian as his first language. In September 2019, Mr. Kim traveled to South Korea on an Overseas Korean Visa which allowed him to work and even open his own business in South Korea on terms similar to those that apply to local residents. 

Mr. Kim says that his motivation for traveling to Korea was to see his ancestral homeland. “Besides, even the lowest wages in Korea are enough to support my family back in my country,” he adds.

Incheon International Airport was the last place where Mr. Kim could use English for communication. Having no knowledge of Korean, Mr. Kim had to rely on so-called ‘helpers’ to find a job. Helpers are people speaking both Korean and Russian, and they usually have several established connections with factories, plants, and other potential places of work. They negotiate with Korean bosses on behalf of job seekers, which is why they are sometimes referred to as the ‘bridge to Korea.’ 

But understanding the world of migrant workers requires not only a bridge but a small Korean lexicon. Mr. Kim hired a helper, who found him a goshiwon — a type of cheap, cramped accommodation that does not require a fixed deposit. But the only place of work his helper could find for him was a samushil. Samushils are widely known among foreign labor in Korea. A typical samushil is a hub that factories and small entrepreneurs contact when they need workers. A worker attached to a samushil waits for a call, sometimes for several days. Workers have the right to reject any call, but then they will soon find themselves called upon less and less. The short-term jobs that the workers get are called arbait or alba (originally from the German word arhbeit, which just means ‘part-time job’). Samushils do have a fixed range of jobs, but they also have a spectrum of specific inquiries, so workers are neither expected to have nor given any proper qualifications. Their sazan (slang for sajang, or ‘director’) briefly tells them what to do and pays out the wages in the end. It is common to never work for the same sazan again. 

As a samushil worker, Mr. Kim worked in many places around Pyeongtaek, the city where he resided, just south of Seoul. 

“The very first work I got was somewhere in the countryside. Early in the morning, a microbus took me and the others from the samushil to some kind of crop field and we were asked to clear the remaining rubbish that was left after a shed was wrecked. It was during a typhoon,” recalls Mr. Kim. He worked there for two days and a few days later he was called again to work on a facility that breeds small animals that are later used in chemical testing. “We were strictly prohibited to use phones while doing any arbait, not talking about taking photos, so me and my colleague could be fired for doing this, and I don’t have many of them”, however Mr. Kim shared a picture from that facility, his face in the photo covered by a mask.

“I had to spray sterilizing chemicals on the floors, and after a whole working day I practically sneezed green powder. When I showered, the water dripping off me was also green,” says Mr. Kim. For a twelve-hour working day, he received 100,000 won, roughly 100 dollars. Working there for a week, he realized that spraying those chemicals was not going to be good for his health, so he decided to turn down the next call. The next arbait he got was at a car recycling facility, where he was appointed to cut the car wires manually. “It was scorching hot. Sweat streamed down all day. I lost some weight when I worked there,” Mr. Kim comments. 

Mr. Kim has a BA in Communication Technologies, and he worked as a teacher at Republic Physics-Mathematics School in Almaty. In addition, he had his own small educational center where he taught physics. I ask why he decided to change his job. He says, “I had some personal relationship issues and my own business began to shrink due to seasonality of education, so I wanted to experience something new.” 

Unfortunately, the seasonality is not inherent to education or country of origin. “I started to notice that I stopped receiving calls for arbait at some point. I started to spend 3-4 days in a row in my goshiwon doing nothing. I called my helper and asked her what was wrong, maybe I refused too many arbaits and now I was simply being ignored. But she said that in Korea, jobs start to decline as winter gets closer.”

Wasting time like this and having to pay for his food and accommodation, Mr. Kim decided to move somewhere else to find a stable job. Hiring another helper, he moved to Seosan, a city in western Korea. 

There, he was expected to start working at a subsidiary factory of a car manufacturing company. “The thing I didn’t like the most was that nobody gave any guarantees or even promises. At the factory, they said to my helper that I am to work for free for the first month to test my performance,” complains Mr. Kim. At the factory, he was introduced to his pajan, a supervising manager. “On the second day he came and started to converse with me in Korean. I was brushing a bumper at that moment. I had learned only a little bit of Korean by that time, so I replied with something like ‘I apologize, but I do not understand’. I accidentally used banmal, a non-formal form of speech, but he understood and didn’t talk to me again,” says Mr. Kim. “The following day he called my helper and said I was fired because I was rude when talking to him and showed off. The other departments of the factory didn’t accept me because they can’t accept workers fired by another department.” 

Mr. Kim returned back to Kazakhstan in the end of November. He has restarted his educational center and plans to develop language exchange programs and educational tours to South Korea in the future.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index, Korea’s rating is 5, which corresponds to “No guarantee of rights”. South Korea shares this category with Afghanistan, Iraq, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, and 28 other states. 

Working in a foreign country is always a great challenge. Smelling the new air is only the first step towards understanding the country. There is an incredible number of dimensions and sides to any country yet to be explored even by the country’s own citizens, let alone foreigners.

Although Moon’s government is pushing minimum wages and improving working conditions, these changes don’t always translate to the foreign labor market.